A trusted friend is the best relative. – Buddha
My cousin was just here with a friend of hers and I showed her around Germany. Actually, she was my mother’s cousin but we always called her cousin. She was an only child and her mother and father died pretty early so she was always included in the family holidays, especially at my uncle’s, my mother’s brother, because they were nearer the same age. At any rate, she was always part of “the family” for us.
During the course of her visit, she gave me a “gift”, she called it. It turned out to be a hat, mittens and scarf set that my mother had knit for her and given her for Christmas. It must have been ages ago. It was still in the box my mother wrapped it in and the store the box was from hasn’t existed in years. And it all smells of mold and moth balls. It is clear to me that she never opened the box again after unwrapping it that Christmas. She just put it away in the attic or the basement or wherever.
I know she meant to do something nice for me but this has all made me very sad. My mother really liked her cousin and I believe she felt a close connection with her. But from the conversations that we had on the trip and from this “gift”, it is clear to me that the feelings weren’t reciprocated. It comes up for me now that my mother’s cousin actually didn’t “like” my mother, which actually explains a few things. When my mother got interested in cruises and travelling, she asked her cousin many times to join her on a trip and was refused or just kind of ignored (it is a family trait). And when my mother died, there wasn’t much sympathy that came from that direction. At the time I hardly noticed because of my own grief. It comes up for me now that it was so.
The thing is, my mother was choleric, she was erratic, she could be vicious and mean. She learned all those things at her mother’s knee (who was also all those things) and I certainly learned them from her. But she was also fun, loved to have a good time and laughed with a deep belly laugh that made everyone laugh with her. And she didn’t spend her time making knitting projects for just anyone. My mother was a really fine knitter but she never made me hat, gloves and scarf. She was reaching out in the only way she knew how. And it fell on deaf ears.
I don’t mean to make my cousin wrong for not liking my mother, her cousin. You can’t choose your relatives like you can your friends. But I feel a communion with my mother that I have never felt before. I know so well the biting sorrow of loving someone who doesn’t love back. Of trying to “court” someone to like you even if it is hopeless. I so wish my mother were alive right now, so I could share that with her. Another way we are/were so alike.
“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.”
― 14th Dalai Lama
My mother was a very creative person. When she was younger she would paint decorative designs on cupboards and trunks with designs and she did a lot of handwork. When she died, there were several boxes of fabric and several unfinished needlework projects left over, some of which I am planning to finish for her.
When I was young, she tried to teach me everything she knew but I wasn’t an especially good student. I still remember the first sewing “lesson”. We bought a beautiful glazed cotton and cut out the dress together. Being the impatient person I was and still am, it was all going way too slow for me and so I tried to finish it on my own, ending up sewing together pieces that weren’t intended to be together and generally making a mess of it. My mother lost patience with me at that point and sent me to my fraternal grandmother – who worked as a seamstress out of her home – to help me repair the damage and get the thing done. She complained bitterly that I was frantically trying to finish the outfit I planned to wear for my wedding just the day before. Definitely not her style of doing things.
My mother was a master at embroidery and would always sigh very loudly over my French Knots (still can’t do them and so I avoid them altogether). For knitting, we started a sweater together when I was 13 or 14 but again it all went way too slow for me and I gave up somewhere in the middle of the front piece. There were still the arms to go. I don’t know whatever happened to that yarn or the pieces. I did finally get the hang of knitting when a co-worker in New York who used to hide behind her cubicle wall knitting with needles about the size of pins explained to me that knitting is something you do with your hands to pass the time and at some point you end up with a garment. That seemed to make sense and I have happily knit quite a few things since then.
Needlepoint and crochet I learned from friends. My mother knew how to do those things too but maybe she was just too frustrated to try and teach my after the other experiences. But when I was older and was doing my own handwork, she loved showing me her newest projects and the kits she was thinking about buying from the stacks of catalogues that she received. These are memories I cherish. The needlepoint pillow I made for her a few years ago with her colors of moss green and rust and covered myself with cotton velvet came back with me to Germany when we emptied her house.
Back when I was young, doing handwork was still something to be proud of, at least I never thought of it any other way. I’m not so sure that anyone really appreciates it anymore. At least that is how it seems to me. But maybe that is just the crabby old lady talking.
Ann Johannsen died on June 5, 2011. Love you Mom.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.
– Joseph Campbell
Christmas has always been an important holiday in my family. My mother loved Christmas, loved the decorating, loved the cookie baking (although generally she didn’t like cooking) loved the Tom & Gerry parties (we were not an eggnog family), going to church on Christmas Eve. I still remember going to church on the Christmas Eve after my dad died. Perfect Minnesota weather – snow storm and 95 degrees below with the wind chill. Matched our feelings that night.
When we were kids, the Christmas tree was a big pine with long needles that stood near the front picture window. Some of the decorations my dad brought from Germany when he was stationed there, some were new. Every year something was added. After my dad died, my mother decided she didn’t want the trouble of a live tree and bought a fake one but it was still large with all of the trimmings. But as she got older, the fake trees got smaller and smaller till in the end the tree was small enough to sit on the ledge of the window.
My mother was always doing some kind of handwork, knitting, cross stitch, sewing, and Christmas was a great inspiration for her. When we kids were young, she made her own ornaments for the tree, for the walls and to set around the room. The stuffed elves with bells in their hats sat on a lamp table. There was still one left over in the cedar chest when we emptied her house and he is now sitting in my living room. The huge three part Santa Claus counted cross stitch that she made and was so proud of that she framed it went to my older brother. When we emptied her house, there were 6 giant boxes of Christmas decorations. Each one of us got something of her wonderful work to remember her by.
My mother’s Christmas cookies were really something special. She made super thin rolled sugar cookies, covered completely in powdered sugar frosting and candied sugar. They were so thin they seemed to melt in your mouth. There were always Santa Clauses with red sprinkles and Christmas trees with colored candy balls and green sprinkles. Even though they were both mostly all sugar, somehow the Santa Clauses tasted better. She also made fancy cookies shaped like acorns with caramel and crushed pecans on top. And the orange cookies with thick orange flavored powdered sugar frosting. She made Rosettes and her friends made Krumkake and they split them up. There was also a Party Mix, a peanut brittle and almond bark that were standards. She usually started baking before Thanksgiving and stored the cookies in the freezer. I used to snitch cookies out of the freezer and sneak them into my room. That is so much a part of my memory of how they taste, I freeze the Christmas cookies I bake now, too. They somehow don’t taste right otherwise.
In our house, we have developed our own Christmas. In Germany, the tradition is to bring the tree in the house on Christmas Eve and decorate it with real candles. They usually prefer fir trees with short needles and lots of space between the branches so that the candles have a lot of room. Those trees look funny to me, I am so used to the thick trees of my youth. We don’t actually get a tree any more. Like my mother, as I have gotten older I don’t feel like dealing with the mess and honestly I don’t see the sense in cutting down a tree so that I can have it in my living room. We tried a tree in a bucket but they never survived the winter or the replanting. Now I have a small one made of metal. Still makes me happy to see the decorations I have accumulated over the years hanging on it.
My husband is in charge of putting up the lights outside and putting together the swag that always goes on the door. It always looks beautiful how he does it. Usually I bake my mother’s cookies and we pig for weeks on them. This year somehow I don’t have the energy and we could both stand to lose a few pounds. Maybe I’ll make a few batches on the weekend just for old time sake.
On Christmas Eve we usually watch movies and I drink Tom & Jerrys – my husband has never gotten used to the super sweet taste so he stays with beer and whisky. The German tradition on Christmas Eve is to eat wieners and potato salad. Go figure. Our tradition is to have baked breaded camembert and Pillsbury rolls. Very low cal. Germans celebrate Christmas over two days so we divide them up and each of us is responsible for the cooking for the entire day. We each try to do something special and exotic. Haven’t decided on the menus for this year yet but I am sure they will be delicious. We are both looking forward to the down time, making a special Christmas time and bringing the year to a close.